The owner of the horse who went from point-to-pointing to winning the Gold Cup has paid tribute to her best friend, who “taught me that dreams sometimes come true”.
Cool Dawn, who won as a 25-1 outsider at Cheltenham in 1998 trained by Robert Alner, has been put down aged 30, after a long and happy retirement with owner Dido Harding.
“Dawn” was bought from Ireland as a five-year-old, for Baroness Harding to ride in point-to-points, which she did.
“He’d come third or fourth in a couple of point-to-points and hadn’t really stayed and [his previous owners] thought he’d make a nice, safe, ladies’ pointer, which is what we were looking for,” Baroness Harding told H&H.
“It turned out he was beaten by horses who went on to be very good but no one knew that then; they called him ‘the flying pencil’ because he was thin, and weak, went very fast and didn’t really do corners.”
Baroness Harding first point-to-pointed Dawn in his six-year-old season.
“At our first race, he reared and went over backwards with me in the paddock,” she said. “I remember lying under the rails, at someone’s feet, and thinking: ‘Oh bloody hell, I don’t really have to get back on him, do I?’
“I had no idea what I was doing, and he ran away with me. I couldn’t pull up and we won by a street. To the experienced, it was probably clear early on [how good he was] but we didn’t realise.”
Baroness Harding recalls another point-to-point at which Dawn pulled up as he passed the start, came to a halt as the field passed him by “20 or 30 lengths” but went on to win, which is when she believed trainer Robert Alner “started to realise he was pretty special”.
“But special in a pointing sense; not as in going to win the Gold Cup!” she added.
But the next season, she rode him to victory in a novice hunter chase at Ascot, and the following year they finished second in the Cheltenham Foxhunter chase, and Dawn came third in the Irish Grand National under Conor O’Dwyer.
“Each stage was like a fairytale,” Baroness Harding said. “After Cheltenham, Robert wanted to run him in the Irish Grand National and even I admitted that having my first race against professionals in that would be a bit stupid!
“It was then we started to think he was really good.”
Dawn had a season off with a tendon injury but the next year, Robert suggested a professional, so Andrew Thornton took the ride.
“We did a deal, that I’d ride him if the race was worth less than £35,000, but Robert wouldn’t enter him in anything else so I was snookered!” Baroness Harding said.
“Then at Christmas, Brendon Powell said: ‘You should enter him in the Gold Cup’. We laughed and he said: ‘No, I’m serious’. That was three months before he won it.”
Baroness said the race itself was “bloody awful to watch”, adding: “It’s much harder to watch than ride!”
“There’s part of me that always wonders what would have happened if I’d ridden him but I absolutely know I wouldn’t have won!” she added.
“But that horse taught me that dreams come true, sometimes, that actually miracles can happen. Isn’t that a great gift? I think it shaped my business career; I owe that horse so much.”
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After Cheltenham, Dawn was pulled up in the Whitbread as he did not run well, then Baroness Harding rode him at Wincanton, where he repeated the feat from his first point-to-point; rearing and falling on his owner on tarmac.
It was later found he had crushed a vertebra in the fall and he was retired from racing but went on to have some 12 seasons’ hunting with Baroness Harding, followed by years of complete retirement at her home in Somerset.
“He hunted throughout his career, including three weeks before the Gold Cup,” she said. “I got bollocked by Robert for jumping some wire that time, but it would have been worse to stop him when everyone was jumping it.
“The master did encourage me to stop after that though, I think he had some money on him!
“Dawn absolutely loved hunting; he was quirky and it kept him sweet but when he retired, he went to nothing, as he was never just a hack. He had a very happy seven years, and even last week was having a good gallop round his field.
“He was an incredibly kind horse, very safe on the ground, and even on the day we had to put him down, he was grumpy as we hadn’t turned him out. He was like a 95-year-old man who didn’t want to go.
“He loved life and he was my best friend.”
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